07/16/2009 11:00PM

French youth well schooled

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Maxime Guyon exults after riding Calvaryman to victory in the Grand Prix de Paris.

It's been a long time since America was thrilled by the exploits of a hot young rider like Steve Cauthen. Thirty-two years, to be exact. Talented young jockeys who explode on the scene and move right to the top are a rarity these days. That is not the case, however, in France, where a new, young rider of the first rank seems to appear every few years.

The latest to hit the big-time is Maxime Guyon. Just 20, he is riding first-string for all the horses trained by Andre Fabre not owned by Khalid Abdullah or the Wertheimer brothers. On Tuesday, he celebrated Bastille Day by riding his first Group 1 winner aboard Cavalryman, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, in the Grand Prix de Paris. He currently stands sixth on the French jockey lists with 53 victories.

Phenomenon not a new one

Four years ago the name Anthony Crastus was unknown in France. Last year, he finished ninth in the French jockey standings. This year, riding first-string for the Wildensteins at the stable of Elie Lellouche, he is in fourth place.

In April 2000, an 18-year-old Belgian named Christophe Soumillon burst on the scene by equaling the French record with five winners in a single day at Saint-Cloud, among them the Group 2 Prix du Muguet on Dansili. A year later he won the first of his three French Derbies aboard Anabaa Blue. He has won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Dalakhani and Zarkava, both owned by the Aga Khan, for whom he rides first-string. On Sept. 10, 2006, Soumillon equaled his own record by winning five races at Longchamp, among them the Group 1 Prix Vermeille and a pair of Group 2's, the Prix Niel and the Prix Foy. He has been champion French rider three times.

Before Soumillon there came Stephane Pasquier. A hot-tempered Parisian, he rode his first winner in 1994 at the age of 16 at Saint-Cloud but soon hit a rough patch. By 2004, he had straightened himself out and was riding big-race winners with regularity. He won the Arc de Triomphe aboard Rail Link in 2006 and was champion jockey a year later. He is Juddmonte Farm's first-call rider in France.

Christophe Lemaire is a household name not only in France but in Japan as well. Now 30, he rode his first winner in 1999. He rides first-string for the Niarchos Family, for whom he guided Divine Proportions to two classic triumphs in 2005. He rode Natagora to win the English 1000 Guineas last year and is currently the rider of Stacelita, the undefeated four-length winner of the French Oaks. A frequent visitor to Japan, Lemaire has won three Grade 1 races there, among them the Arima Kinen aboard Heart's Cry, on whom he also won the Dubai Sheema Classic.

How does France do it? The answer is simple. AFASEC. That's the acronym for the apprentice riders' school in Chantilly, the headquarters of French racing. Patrick-Louis Biancone, who had a hand in developing the current "older" generation of French jockeys, including Gerald Mosse, Dominique Boeuf, and Olivier Peslier, all graduates of AFASEC, explains.

"About 25 years ago the French government passed a law requiring all students to remain in school until they were 16," said Biancone. "The old law had been 14, after which the racing community could begin training young jockeys. So what the French Jockey Club did was start a school - with government support - that would teach young people the skills of race-riding and other aspects of horsemanship, as well as giving them an academic education.

"Virtually all of the riders in France are graduates of this school. Lemaire, whose father was a jump jockey, is the exception."

The school accepts between 100 and 120 applicants per year, and the training is rigorous enough to produce riders like Guyon, Soumillon, and Pasquier, in addition to top names like Peslier, Boeuf and Thierry Jarnet, each of whom has won the French riding title four times.

"Out of the 500 or so students who are in the school at any given time," Biancone says, "one of them is bound to be a star."

And those who don't become stars frequently become more-than-capable riders like Thierry Thulliez and Davy Bonilla. Or they branch out and become jump jockeys, or trainers, or find positions elsewhere in the industry.

"It's like this," Biancone said. "If you don't have law schools, you don't have lawyers. If you don't have a jockey school, you'll have a hard time producing good jockeys."

As further proof of his theory, Biancone noted the success of riders from a small country like Panama, where the jockeys' school has produced Manuel Ycaza, Heliodoro Gustines, Braulio Baeza, Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez, Laffit Pincay, Alex Solis, and Cornelio Velasquez, among others.

Do we need a school in America like those in France and Panama? You bet your riding boots we do. Chris McCarron's North American Racing Academy is fighting the good fight at the Kentucky Horse Park and Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, but its students don't start until after they have graduated from high school. The academy had eight graduates in 2008 and currently has 25 young hopefuls enrolled. It is supported by the state of Kentucky but not to the extent that the French government backs AFASEC. Curiously, much of the French school's backing comes from the unlikeliest of sources: uncashed parimutuel tickets.

If we could get American racetracks to part with some of the money that pours in from our uncashed tickets, McCarron's school might soon be in a position to produce riders of the caliber of Peslier, Soumillon, and Pasquier, or Baeza, Velasquez, and Pincay.